Origins and comparative folklore
The etymology of puck is uncertain. The modern English word is attested already in Old English as puca (with a diminutive form pucel). Similar words are attested later in Old Norse (púki, with related forms including Old Swedish puke, Icelandic púki, and Frisian puk) but also in the Celtic languages (Welsh pwca, Cornish bucca and Irish púca). Most commentators think that the word was borrowed from one of these neighbouring north-west European languages into the others, but it is not certain in what direction the borrowing went, and all vectors have been proposed by scholars. The Oxford English Dictionary favoured a Scandinavian origin, but the most recent scholarly study argues for an Irish origin, on the basis that the word is widely distributed in Irish place-names, whereas puck-place-names in English are rare and late in the areas showing Old Norse influence, and seem rather to radiate outwards from the south-west of England, which arguably had Irish influence during the early medieval period.
The term pixie is in origin a diminutive of puck.
Puck may also be called "Robin Goodfellow" or "Hobgoblin", in which "Hob" may substitute for "Rob" or may simply refer to the "goblin of the hearth" or hob. The name Robin is Middle English in origin, deriving from Old French Robin, the pet form for the name Robert. The earliest reference to "Robin Goodfellow" cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1531.
Anthony Munday mentions Robin Goodfellow in his play The Two Italian Gentlemen, 1584, and he appears in Skialtheia, or a Shadowe of Truth in 1598. William Shakespeare may have had access to the manuscript of Lewes Lewkenor's translation of The Spanish Mandevile of Miracles, or, The Garden of Curious Flowers (1600) a translation of Antonio de Torquemada's, Jardin Flores Curiosas. The following passage from The Spanish Mandeville discusses the mischievous spirits:
Luduvico: I pray you let me somewhat understand your opinion as concerning Robingoodfellowes and Hobgoblins, which are said to be so common, that there is scarcely any man but will tell you one tale or other of them, of which for my own part, I believe none, but do make reckoning that every man forgeth herein, what pleaseth him.
Antonio: Many of them without doubt are forged, and many also true, for these kinds of Spirits are more familiar and domestical than the others, and for some causes to us unknown, abide in one place, more than in another, so that some never almost depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundry noises, rumours, mockeries, gawdes and jests, without doing any harm at all: and though I am not myself witness thereof, yet I have heard many persons of credit affirm that they have heard them play as it were on Gyterns & Jews Harps, and ring Bells, and that they answer to those that call them, and speak with certain signs, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not at all. But in truth, as I said before, if they had free power to put in practice their malicious desire, we should find these pranks of theirs, not to be jests, but earnest indeed, tending to the destruction of both our body and soul, but as I told you before, this power of theirs is so restrained and tied, that they can pass no farther than to jests and gawdes: and if they do any harm or hurt at all, it is certain very little, as by experience we daily see.
After Meyerbeer's successful opera Robert le Diable (1831), neo-medievalists and occultists began to apply the name Robin Goodfellow to the Devil, with appropriately extravagant imagery.